Villagers in eastern Pa'an District, part of central Karen State which borders on Thailand (see map), are facing serious problems with food and livelihood security, leading to food shortages and lack of money for health and other expenses. The causes are ongoing forced labour and extortion demands by State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) authorities, SPDC orders for farmers to produce crops in dry season, and encroachment on villagers' land and villages to establish camps and farmfields for SPDC Army units.
In the mountainous area of eastern Pa'an District from Dta Greh township in the north to Meh Pleh area in southern T'Nay Hsah township (see Pa'an district map), most villagers farm irrigated flat rice fields or rain-fed hill rice fields in the rainy season (June to October) and harvest in November/December. In the dry season, some villagers grow tobacco to earn money, and some villagers living in plain areas at the base of the mountains gather thay t'wee bay bark, which is dried and sold but earns them only 130 Kyat per viss (1.6 kg/3.5 lb). This is how the villagers get money to buy fishpaste and salt. Some villagers earn a living as cattle and buffalo traders, while others sell poultry, salt and fishpaste in the villages.
However, all of these livelihoods are being undermined severely by demands placed on the villagers by SPDC and DKBA authorities. One of the biggest problems is forced labour, which takes villagers away from their work much of the time. For example, Camp 1520 of SPDC Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #356 is near Loh Baw village. The camp commander, Khin Maung Aye, only has five or six soldiers at the camp, yet he forces the Loh Baw villagers to go to the camp every day for forced labour as sentries. LIB #356 has another camp the same size at Koh Lay Wah, where camp commander Myo Win forces villagers from D'Naw Kleh Kee village to do forced labour as sentries, carrying water, gathering firewood, cutting scrub and clearing ground around the military camp, and doing other work in the camp. On days when no help is needed at the camp, the villagers are forced to pay 500 Kyat per day in lieu of going.
In Myawaddy, Chairman Leh Htun of the Township Peace and Development Council has ordered the villagers in the nearby villages of Kway Sha, Htee Wah Blaw, Bpaw Baw Koh, and D'Naw Kleh Kee to farm paddy in the dry season. The villagers in the area have never done this and the irrigation systems and the soil are not prepared for it, so the first one or two crops will almost certainly fail - yet the villagers have no choice but to comply with the order. By the beginning of March the Bpaw Baw Koh villagers had already transplanted their paddy seedlings into the open fields and had spent 75,000 Kyat on this crop they do not want to grow. In the plains of central Pa'an district, SPDC Light Infantry Battalions #547, #548 and #549 have been forcing villagers to farm the Army's crops. Early this dry season they forced the villagers to harvest the fields around their camps. In January 2005 they also forced the villagers in all of the plains village tracts to send them firewood.
To the north in Dta Greh township, two battalions from SPDC Light Infantry Division #77 - LIB #313 commanded by Win Ko Ko, and LIB #391 commanded by Mya Aung - came in November 2004 and set up bases in Dta Greh village. To make way for the attached military cantonment village, 19 households were forced to move. Part of the land they confiscated was irrigated rice fields belonging to a villager. On February 7 th 2005 they opened their offices and demanded 50,000 Kyat from each village tract to pay for the office opening ceremonies. The villages also had to provide the food for the ceremonies.
The SPDC also plans to make the route from Peh Kru (near Dta Greh) south to Paw Ye Bu and T'Nay Hsah (Nabu) into a major road. District Peace and Development Council (DPDC) Deputy Chairman Colonel Ko Ko Gyi (based in Pa'an) and Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) Chairman U Aung Zan Than (based in Hlaing Bwe) already had a meeting with village tract leaders and gave orders for people to build the road. The village tract leaders say that this will be a wide road and will take a long time to build.
Civilians living in the village tracts of T'Nay Hsah township are also kept away from their own work by regular forced labour for the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen armed group allied with the SPDC. DKBA #999 Brigade's Special Battalion, commanded by Colonel Maung Chit Thu, is based at Koh Koh, on the Thai border east of Meh Pleh. Another part of this Battalion stays nearby at the foot of Gka Lu mountain, commanded by Pu Weh Der, while a third commanded by Po Kyeh Yu is based near Meh Pleh village. They have ordered local villagers to build a vehicle road along the track from Koh Koh up to just outside Meh Pleh village, and a bridge at the entrance to Meh Pleh village. The number of people who have to go from each village every day depends on the number of houses in the village; at least ten people per day must go from the smaller villages, and more from larger villages. The villagers have to take turns working every day, so they don't have much time for their own work.
In the plains area further west, DKBA Brigade #999 Special Battalion Company #3 led by Pu Tah Kler is based outside T'Nay Hsah (Nabu) village. One of the intelligence officers named Ta Pweh Yuh has set up a sawmill in Noh Htee Leh village, and local villagers are forced to work there. In Dta Greh township, DKBA Brigade #999 deputy commander Saw Kya Aye lives in Hla Neh village. He ordered people to build a bridge in Dta Greh village and then to repair the road from Bpaw up to Bee T'Ka and Hteh Buh village. The villagers already did all of this work. Another officer from #999 Brigade, Saw Pan Wah, has set up his sawmill in Noh P'Leh village in Htee Po D'Ray village tract. Villagers living in the area have to haul logs and timber for the mill using their own elephants and bullock carts. Making matters worse, the villagers cannot find enough thatch to make roofs for their houses because the DKBA is cutting down the trees whose leaves are used for thatch.
Overall, civilians in the plains areas say that forced labour has reduced somewhat, mainly because SPDC troops are bringing convict porters into the region instead of using local villagers as porters. Villagers in the mountainous areas of T'Nay Hsah and Dta Greh townships, however, report that they still have to do forced labour all the time, most often under the orders of the DKBA. In the plains and the mountains, but particularly in the mountains, villagers are reporting that they are now facing food shortages and have no money to buy medicines for the sick, because the combination of forced labour, extortion, and encroachment on their land is depriving them of the material resources and time needed to work their farms and pursue their other livelihoods. This problem is only likely to get worse if the SPDC and DKBA increase their control and militarisation in Pa'an District.